Communication, Family Ties, Relationships, Toolkit

How to Fight Fair

I see a lot of couples in my practice and one thing they tell me is that when frustrations build up, it can be easy to engage in destructive communication. Every couple argues, but not every couple has to resort to things like name calling, belittling, the silent treatment, or walking out. This article will give you some ideas on how to argue effectively and end up with a win/win result for you and your partner.

First, to borrow from Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. What I mean by that is identifying your goal. Is it to hurt your partner and win an argument, or is it to find resolution so that neither of you walks away feeling like you have lost? Most of you will answer the latter. By identifying your goal of a positive, win/win outcome for both of you, you have a course to follow in your discussion.

Second, don’t let things build up to the point where you explode. When you are very upset, it’s difficult to reign in your emotions and keep a cool head and communicate reasonably. Maintain regular communication with your partner and resolve concerns while they are manageable.  When this doesn’t happen you will sometimes see couples dredging up every hurt they’ve ever experienced in the relationship – so much has built up and gone unresolved. Regular communication, even about difficult issues, is part of every healthy relationship.

Third, know when you need a time-out. Time-outs can sometimes be misused, and end up as a form of the silent treatment, or what Dr. John Gottman calls “stonewalling.” Not helpful. But when used correctly – to clear your head and get back onto steady ground before continuing a heated discussion – a time-out can allow each partner to regroup and come back together calmer and cooler. One way to use time-outs effectively is to set a time limit – say to your partner “This discussion is important to me, but I feel like I am overwhelmed and need to clear my head so we can work through it better. Let me go take a walk and I will be back in an hour, so we can continue.” That way the other partner does not feel abandoned, and he or she may use the time to calm down as well.

Finally, tackle the challenges together. Seeing your partner as the problem is bound to pit you against each other. Seeing the problem as the problem allows you to work through it as a couple. Here is where it becomes helpful to use “I” statements instead of the more blaming “you” statements. For example: “I feel stressed by the chores and tasks to do around here. What can we do?” is a lot easier to hear than “You are a lazy slob. You never help me out around here.” The first example helps you find a solution together, the second is like pouring gasoline on a fire and is almost guaranteed to escalate the discussion into anger.

Give these ideas a try, not only with your significant other but your kids, co-workers, friends, and family members and see if your relationships become more peaceful.

A video version of this article is available here:


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